If you leave a biopic wanting to find out as much as you can about its subject, then find yourself smiling as you Google their name, then that film has most likely done its job. GOOD VIBRATIONS is an outstanding piece of work. A social realist exploration and celebration of the magic of music, it is as uplifting as it is gut wrenching. Set during ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s (which is a bit like referring to the conflict in Syria as ‘The Kerfuffle’), GOOD VIBRATIONS tells the tale of Terri Hooley (that’s Terri with one I because that’s what he has), a record shop owner who remains unknown to most, but is beloved by music aficionados as ‘The Godfather of Belfast Punk.’ John Peel maybe credited as discovering The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, but it was Hooley that got the song to the legendary DJ, which speaks volumes about his vicarious influence and eventual legacy.
The opening titles, in which a pre-teen Terry (when he didn’t have just one I) runs around the garden to Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light sets not only the tone, but the visual style to come. Husband and wife duo Lisa Baros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (whose debut feature was the Rupert Grint starring CHERRY BOMB in 2009) create a unique aesthetic that strikes the perfect balance of symbolism. It juxtaposes the draining struggle of every day life in Belfast at the time with the dreamlike state to which perfect music can transport us. The film itself does just that with its audience, creating some truly glorious moments where you find yourself wondering whether you’re experiencing the magic of the movies or music. You are under a spell of pure euphoria, which is demonstrable in a few scenes. Firstly, when Hooley is in a tiny pub and hears the band Rudi for the first time. The camera lingers on his face as he discovers the punk inside which has always been there, it just needed the right band, the right song, the right creative manner in which to face off against the establishment, to bring him out. However, the most exceptional scene is where Hooley and his wife Ruth are listening to John Peel’s radio show, waiting nervously to hear the debut record of his protégés The Undertones. Previously, we see Hooley in the studio where the band are laying down their first tracks. He pops on a pair of headphones and hears their greatest song, which the engineer calls the best thing he’s ever recorded. We know what he hears, but D’Sa and Leyburn tease us, holding back from actually playing it and letting us witness Hooley’s reaction, which is one of awe and excitement. Back in the flat, he is on the toilet reading Emily Dickenson and he only catches the end. However, in an instant which beautifully captures the essence of a historic moment in radio lore, Peel says ‘I liked that so much, I’m going to play it again.’ And with that, we hear Teenage Kicks for the first time, as Ruth and her ecstatic husband jump with joy. Their friends come to the door with a boombox exclaiming ‘John fockin PEEL!!’ (whom the film treats with well deserved reverence)and they all dance in the street as a helicopter hovers over head shining a spotlight down upon our hero as the iconic song reaches its crescendo. Scenes like this are what cinema is for.
Hooley is played by Richard Dormer (GAME OF THRONES) with a manic magnetism, drawing us in with the promise of a pint and a decent tune. His is one of the stand-out performances of the year, as Dormer creates a charismatic rogue that is constantly watchable. He is backed up by a sterling cast, most notably Jodie Whitaker as Ruth. The ATTACK THE BLOCK star doesn’t fall into the stereotypical ‘disapproving wife who gets won over by flawed but charming lover’ role we see a lot, as her performance is much more grounded. She is a woman who loves her husband but is not afraid leave when things become untenable. Whilst one might find it predictable that their marriage falls apart due to his focus on the music, the shop and other related enterprises, GOOD VIBRATIONS avoids most of the clichés attributed to this long standing tradition in biopics of tortured geniuses. Instead, the disintegration of their relationship is an almost gentle affair, with Ruth calm and considered in her decision to leave. We’ve seen films where the protaganist’s decent into drink and/or drugs push away their loved ones, but it is seldom this natural. It feels like watching friends breaking up. It is small, sad and most of all human.
Sadness is weaved throughout the picture, as we never forget the historic backdrop. Like THE FULL MONTY or LITTLE VOICE before it, one cannot really call it a ‘feel good’ film as the lives these people live are almost hopeless and inescapable. Religious civil war was tearing Belfast apart and this is denoted through some extraordinary montages of stock footage which are over layered with the joyous and angry punk music Hooley promoted. We never lose sight of the horrors that truly defined that time and place. But this spurred on the musical revolution, for these young men and women had a means of venting their anger, fear and frustration and it created some of the best music of the decade. As Hooley declares at the rousing finale, when it comes to punk; ‘New York has the haircuts. London has the trousers. But Belfast has the reason.’ So while it is true that GOOD VIBRATIONS isn’t a ‘feel good’ film, it is a ‘feel great’ film. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be pogo-ing into your nearest record shop to buy the soundtrack. Well, ok, you won’t. You’ll be unable to find one and you’ll download it onto your phone. But you’ll be smiling as you do it.
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